One of the most extraordinary musicians that I ever had the good fortune to work with was Howard McCrary. Equally comfortable singing and playing piano in gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and more commercial material, he simply has no fear where music is concerned, simply a huge curiosity and an overwhelming natural ability. Howard is also blessed with a natural charm, a sense of humour and is a really good chap, although this doesn’t always work in his favour.
Howard was born into the McCrary gospel family, the ninth of ten siblings, in Youngstown, Ohio. Unsurprisingly, he was singing in church from an impossibly early age and at 16 became an important part of the McCrary Family Gospel Choir, an aggregation of some renown in the gospel world. So much so that the choir’s spin-off group, The McCrary Five, naturally with Howard in the driving seat, undertook a coast-to-coast U.S. tour, co-headlining with The Jackson Five. This is where Howard first met Michael, going on to play on several Michael Jackson albums, leading to Michael’s producer, Quincy Jones, producing Howard’s album. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a 1986 Grammy nomination for his “So Good” album, The Duke Ellington Award for Most Promising Gospel Composer, as well as recording with Diana Ross, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias, Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick and Earth, Wind & Fire. Howard became musical director to Chaka Khan and married her sister, Tammy.
I knew none of this when, in the 1990s, Big Bear were booking the bands into the short-lived, badly-managed and ill-fated Birmingham’s Ronnie Scott’s. I spotted that Chicago-born blues guitar man Phil Upchurch was setting up a European tour with his Combo and that there were no dates in the UK. I made an offer for six days at Ronnie’s to be added to the end of the tour, and then came the difficult part, persuading Ronnie’s Birmingham owner, Allan Sartori, that this was an unmissable opportunity. I managed to convince him that it was guaranteed good box office, the only language he understood, and Upchurch came to Birmingham to play his only ever dates in the UK. I had known of The Phil Upchurch Combo since that terrific 45, “You Can’t Sit Down” parts one and two, released in the UK in 1966, on Sue Records, charting at #66. I had always thought of them as an instrumented combo and at the soundcheck was surprised to see that he featured his piano player as singer through much of the set.
That’s when I first encountered Howard McCrary
Four of the six nights were sell-outs, enthusiasts made their way to Birmingham from all over the UK, and Howard McCrary was, without doubt, the star of the show.
We got into conversation from the outset, me becoming increasingly amazed that he knew nothing about the blues or rhythm & blues, he because he was immediately fascinated by the recordings I introduced him to – Jimmy Rushing, Charles Brown, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, Joe Williams, Ernie Andrews et al.
We took to hanging out together every day. I made him a 12 song cassette of the singers I figured that he should listen to, he put me into near shock by putting two of these new-to-him songs into the set that very night and the next afternoon singing and playing, extremely well, all twelve of those songs he had first encountered only 24 hours earlier – melody lines, lyrics, chord sequences, the lot.
The Sunday morning after the final night, we breakfasted at the Strathallan Hotel and made plans to work together in the future, before I waved the band off to the airport to fly to Schiphol, play the final show of the tour, in Rotterdam, and fly back to Los Angeles the next morning.
The next morning, when Howard was scheduled to be mid-flight he phoned, to say that the Rotterdam show had been cancelled and that he was at the airport. Rather more than surprised, I asked how it was possible to be back in L.A. so quickly, to which he replied that he wasn’t in L.A., but at Birmingham Airport and could I pick him up as he wanted to pick up where we had left off and develop his career as a bluesman.
He stayed in my spare room for a few days before I fixed him an apartment, rented him a piano and, importantly, landed a six nights a week solo residency at Ronnie’s, from 11 to 2am which we called Howard McCrary and The Midnight Slows. That worked well from the outset, with a predominately female audience.
We put a terrific band together, with Mike Burney on tenor, Josh McCalla, guitar, Roger Inniss, bass guitar, and drummer Tim Jones. Over the next 18 months or so Howard’s band rose meteorically. Very soon they were headlining at Birmingham Ronnie’s, playing clubs, festivals, radio and TV in UK, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and Norway. The band played a 50 UK pub tour sponsored by Budweiser and in 1993 recorded a rocking good live album for Big Bear, “Moments Like This”. Howard was also a guest, along with Charles Brown, Gene ‘The Mighty Flea’ Connors and Val Wiseman on the 1993 King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys Big Bear album “Blues & Rhythm Volume 1”.
A pal of mine, soprano saxophonist and Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Julian Smith had become a headline attraction on the cruise ships, jetting in to some far-off exotic port, picking up a ship and headlining for 4 or 5 days before dropping off somewhere else and picking up on another ship. Julian, on a three day stopover in Hong Kong, visited a local niterie where none other than Howard McCrary was holding sway on piano and singing. They talked, Howard asked to be re-connected with me and we have stayed in touch since. He is now very happily married to Ivy Chan and – there’s no surprise here – has become a celebrity since moving to Hong Kong in 2015, appearing on TV with The Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra, playing jazz and blues in clubs as well as being at the heart of their gospel music movement, most recently appearing on the Chung Brothers album.
The reason for my straying from this Bluesletter’s regular blues content, other than always being more-than-willing to extol the virtues of Howard McCrary, is that someone passed to me a Facebook post by Howard, being far too generous towards me and hoping to revisit Birmingham when the pandemic has finally passed.
I can hardly think of anything more pleasant and I live in hope that he will do that during our jazz festival. Now, that would be fun.
The Facebook post referred to above said:
You are the best, absolutely. The highlight of my career was working with you. You took the time to tutor me about what a jazz performance was all about. I owe you a great depth of gratitude. I hope that we can reconvene in Birmingham when the pandemic settles down.)